Education Reform: The End and the Means (from 7-1-15)

Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that you think the education reformers’ goals are good ones. Let’s just pretend, for the moment, that closing down the public schools and replacing them with for-profit, privately run, government funded entities, is a good idea. 

Even if the end is right, does it justify the means? 

Because here’s what the reformers did not do: they did not announce their intentions openly from the start. Their stated aim was improve the public schools. 

But if the reformers’ real goals involve ultimately removing public schools as the primary mode of education in the United States and replacing it with a completely different, privatized model, they sure didn’t say so. They didn’t announce their plans from the get-go because they knew people would not react well. Surveys show that most parents are happy with their local public schools. They don’t see the need to replace them. Indeed, most parents don’t see that big a need for “school choice.” 

So here is what the reformers did: they created the myth that public schools everywhere are failing, churning out either dropouts or stupid graduates. They created the public perception that public school teachers are (in no particular order) a combination of lazy, stupid, and incompetent. They pushed for “accountability” that would root out the bad teachers, and claimed that rooting out bad teachers would solve all our educational problems. 

This accountability involved standardized testing, the rating of schools  and teachers based on test scores,  and the possibility of closing “failing” schools and handing them over to private vendors. It also involved, from the start, voucher programs to let students at failing schools go to private schools. This move was predicated on the idea that private schools are always better, even if they aren’t subject to the same standardized tests and accountability measures as public schools. No Child Left Behind made this agenda national. Race to the Top made it worse. 

I think many reformers really thought, and still think, they are helping public schools by forcing them to participate in their own destruction and create their own competition. But certainly not all of them. 

For many of them, the goal has always been to destroy public education. And their supposed attempts to improve the schools were a brilliant and ironic way of destroying them in full view of the public, with public approval. 

The question is, again, does the end justify the means? 

Here is what the “means,” have done to schools. 

For the past decade or more students have been subjected to schools that are really test preparation factories. In elementary school, history, science, recess, and the arts have been nudged out of schools to make way for test prep in reading, math, and sometimes writing. Instruction has become limited to teaching students to answer test-questions, which has warped the actual content being taught. I have written frequently about the effect test-prep has had and continues to have on writing instruction. And more and more time is being devoted not just to test-prep, but to testing itself. I recently wrote in this space about the weeks of time our school was forced to devote to cycling our students through computer tests in writing, reading, and math, and the disruption it caused campus-wide for not days but weeks

The very things that would help our students succeed are the things being taken away. 

Free play has been researched and found to improve creative thinking, self control, and the ability to learn new things. So we take away recess to improve test scores. 

Background knowledge is one of the chief things students need to read well, so what do we do? We take away elementary science and history, the very places where students get the background knowledge to read well later. With the introduction of the Common Core Standards, we are told not to use background knowledge at all, but to focus on the text alone, in what some authors have called Zombie New Criticism. I once sat through a Common Core workshop where we spent over an hour attempting to interpret The Gettysburg Address without using any of our knowledge about The Civil War, the battle itself, or Lincoln. It was not edifying. 

This testing culture leads, ironically, to a lack of real thinking about instruction. It leads teachers and students alike to not really think about their subjects in a deep and meaningful way, but to be compliant, to assume the rubrics and curriculum maps and textbooks and test prep materials will tell them all they need to know. It leads to a culture like the one I illustrated here, where the human mind is like a bucket, and knowledge is dumped out onto a test and forgotten. 

The testing culture has not only hurt instruction and learning, it has turned students into data points. At one point my wife, also a teacher, advocated for a brilliant, straight-A English student who was leaving our middle school to go to the high school. She wrote well and read well and thought well, but didn’t test well. When my wife tried to get her into honors English at the high school, she was informed that the student’s test scores were too low for that placement, and that as a school, they were “beholden to the state” to make placements based on test scores. I have heard teachers refer to students by their test scores. “He’s a 5.” “She’s a 2.” “I don’t want those 1’s in my class.” 

The education reformers attempts to improve teaching and teachers have brought teacher morale to an all-time low. Career teachers are leaving the profession in droves. Teachers are being evaluated by ever-fluctuating test scores, being rated ‘basic” or “unsatisfactory” on an arbitrary rubric, being micromanaged and told exactly what and how to teach instead of being encouraged, or even allowed, to be creative. Teachers are having health problems, depression, and stress. I have been there. 

Some would argue that teacher stress is an adult concern, and that we need to think about the students first. But the way we treat teachers is the way we treat students. Who do you want in front of your class– a passionate, intelligent, creative, responsive teacher, or a teacher whose passion, intelligence, creativity and responsiveness have been turned off in favor of every teacher following the same workbook program or script? We have not only disenfranchised teachers, we have redefined teaching in negative and destructive ways. Enrollments in education colleges are down. Young people have heard: teaching is an awful job choice now. 

A teacher’s role is more than just “curriculum dispensing” or being a “Quantifiable Learning Gains Facilitator.” A teacher should be a role model for passionate engagement in a subject or subjects, a role model for life-long learning and reading, a role model for creativity on the job. When we take away a teachers passion and creativity, we take away what makes them a teacher. And we have been systematically killing off passion and creativity in our teachers. 

Education reformers’ approaches have not improved education, and have in fact, come close to ruining our public schools. But the end justifies the  means, right? Once we have our glorious free-market educational utopia, it will all be worth it, right? 

Only if you think propaganda and subterfuge are legitimate ways to enact change. Jeb Bush, who instituted the education reforms in Florida that have made schools into test factories, had the gall to write a editorial piece about the virtues of virtual schools for the Orlando Sentinel a few years back, suggesting that virtual schools were a good way to escape those awful, test-driven public schools. He designed those public schools to be test-driven–he forced them to be test-driven. But then he claimed that being test driven makes public schools awful, so we should fund private alternatives. 

Even if you think free-market schools are the solution, do you really think lying to the public about your real goals and undermining public schools while pretending to help them are above-board methods for achieving your goals?  Do you really think that the ruined educations of a generation of students, the ruined careers of hundreds of thousands of devoted teachers, and the factorization of thousands of schools is just a little collateral damage? 

I don’t.